By CHRIS LEHOURITES
WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Serena Williams bit her upper lip. She held her left hand over her mouth and tried to hold back tears while getting ready to serve.
It was the first set of her first-round match Tuesday at Wimbledon, and Williams knew this stay at a tournament where she has won seven of her 23 Grand Slam singles titles was about to end because she hurt her right leg when she lost her footing behind a baseline.
Moments later, her legs buckled as she tried to change directions to chase a shot by her opponent, 100th-ranked Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus. Williams dropped to her knees, her head down on the grass. She used her racket to help her stand, but only so she could limp to the net to concede — just the second mid-match retirement at any Grand Slam tournament of her career and first since 1998.
“I was heartbroken to have to withdraw today,” Williams said in a statement released by the tournament.
“Feeling the extraordinary warmth and support of the crowd today when I walked on — and off — the court,” she said, “meant the world to me.”
Said Sasnovich: “She’s a great champion, and it’s (a) sad story.”
Roger Federer surely articulated a common sentiment when told by a reporter what happened to Williams.
“Oh, my God,” he said. “I can’t believe it.”
Williams was serving while leading 3-1 at Centre Court — where the retractable roof was shut because of rain that forced the postponement of two dozen matches until Wednesday — when her left shoe seemed to lose its traction while she was hitting a forehand.
Williams winced and stepped gingerly between points, clearly troubled. After dropping that game, she asked to visit with a trainer and took a medical timeout.
She tried to continue playing. The crowd tried to offer support and encouragement. Eventually, the 39-year-old American couldn’t continue. The chair umpire climbed down to check on her, and they walked together up to the net; the score was 3-all, 15-30 when Williams stopped.
Williams, who began the match with her right thigh heavily taped, raised her racket with right arm and put her left palm on her chest. Then she waved to the spectators.
Officially, this goes in the books as only the second first-round Grand Slam exit of Williams’ career. The other came at the 2012 French Open, where she was beaten by Virginie Razzano. Shortly after that, Williams teamed up with coach Patrick Mouratoglou and began accumulating majors to eclipse Steffi Graf’s professional era record of 22 and move within one of Margaret Court’s all-era mark of 24.
“All the best for her,” said Sasnovich, who reached the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2018 for her best Grand Slam result.
Williams’ departure makes a wide-open women’s draw even more so. As it was, defending champion Simona Halep and four-time major champ Naomi Osaka withdrew before the tournament started.
And so, even as her 40th birthday approaches in September, Williams was among the top contenders. With her best-in-the-game serve and stinging groundstrokes, she had made it to the past four finals when she entered Wimbledon — winning in 2015 and 2016, missing the tournament while pregnant in 2017, then finishing as the runner-up in 2018 and 2019 (it was canceled last year because of the pandemic).
Williams was hardly the first player to find it difficult to deal with the slick grass over the first two days of main-draw play.